Nomadland wants to be a film about precarity and poverty, but it is in fact a film about Frances McDormand’s skill as an actor.
Shonni Enelow’s short essay “Toil and Trouble” written for Film Comment’s email newsletter captures precisely what I felt after watching Nomadland. I was constantly aware of McDormand the actor and was left unconvinced by the film’s muddle of narrative conventions.1 By pressing on how Shakespeare is narrowly invoked, Enelow offers a refreshing read of the filmmakers’ blindness to their own participation in the inequalities and exploitation they hope to reveal and subvert.
Representation is hard.
I would have preferred the essayistic film grammar and Brechtian artifice of Godard, though that is likely still too much for the Academy to swallow. ↩
How we experience moving images, including today’s streaming services, and the impact it has had on modes of film production and film style is fascinating and always evolving. But, as Randall Stross points out, many film scholars and historians, including history John Belton (who knows more about the history of film exhibition than most), want to make a distinction between what constitutes a cinematic experience and mere movie watching.
Adopting an auteurist perspective on all that is wrong with Hollywood filmmaking, Soderbergh goes too far by dismissing the role of the audience in defining what sets ‘cinema’ apart from mere movies.
Speaking at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, for its State of Cinema address, Steven Soderbergh offered the following definition of cinema (emphasis mine) as part of his general assessment of today’s Hollywood film industry:
The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.
He later adds . . .
But the problem is that cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience.
Writing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott suggests that Soderbergh’s self-described rant is more about the realization of his much-publicized retirement from traditional filmmaking and embrace of other modes of cinematic production (e.g., television and even Twitter) in order to express one’s “vision” than a fully baked notion of cinema with a capital C. His embrace of new technologies, especially in terms of where and how cinema might be encountered (say, in contrast to David Lynch’s colorful and unambiguous contempt for watching movies on mobile phones) is open-minded and provocative, though risks too broad a stroke; as Scott points out, Soderbergh uses the term [cinema] “more or less as a synonym for art”.
Yet, I find it curious, along with a casual dismissal of generic conventions and the accidental (“arbitrary”) aspects of the creative process, he is quick to implicate those who would feed him, his audience, to adopt a seemingly old school auteurist view, where movies attain the status of cinematic endeavor at the hands of their director-author, especially because of his or her (not necessarily literal) struggle with an indifferent, even hostile studio system. Soderbergh further contends the narrowing of options for filmmakers today goes beyond the studio executive’s stereotypical intolerance for ambiguity and narrative complexity, and is symptomatic of an American appetite for escapism in response to 9/11, the trauma of which still haunts the box office, if not our everyday lives.
When the Lumières first exhibited their new invention the cinématographe and accompanying short films, including La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (1895), in Paris on December 28, 1895, the idea of cinema (as the intersection of a paying audience watching moving images projected on a screen) was born. Since then, I’m not sure there has ever been a time when its identity, especially in terms of how films should be presented and truly experienced, hasn’t been in some sort of crisis; for example in response to the emergence of television and the “domestication” of cinema during the 1950s and 1960s or the advent of cable television, VCRs and laser discs in the early 1980s, to name just two of the better known threats. Today, cinema is experiencing redefinition through the lens of the Internet, tablet computers and iPhones, and digital projection. I am thankful for Soderbergh’s candid and obviously passionate observations concerning the economic realities of contemporary Hollywood but I also think it is important not to discount the role of the audience as we contemplate what makes cinema (beyond aesthetics, tools, and authorship). As with new methods for the signature production and mass distribution of something that might be considered cinematic (per Soderbergh’s qualifications), new audiences also emerge and are equally relevant to cinema’s continuing evolution and transformation.
I never met Roger Ebert and I doubt he knew of me directly. Yet he played an important if brief role in my graduate education that I’d like to share in his memory.
During my stint at the U of C, I volunteered in various roles at Doc Films. For me, to spend evenings threading a projector or dreaming up (and sometimes programming) film series with fellow movie buffs was a welcomed antidote to the removed, sometimes too abstract, relationship one has with cinema as a student of critical theory and cultural studies. In 1998, for a series I co-curated comprised of films by foreign directors with the idea of America and American culture as central themes, a fellow Doc volunteer, who also worked as a projectionist for Roger’s continuing ed course at the Graham School, asked Roger one night for his advice on movies we should consider including. His response surprised me: W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev, 1971), not the kind of film I would have ever expected from the critic whom I had dismissed over the years as too mainstream and forgiving in his tastes, responsible for reducing film criticism to thumbs pointed in one direction or another. The obscurity and uniqueness of the suggestion and (I’m told) the alacrity with which it was offered opened my eyes to better appreciate and understand the breath of Ebert’s knowledge of film history and his unpretentious appreciation of movies, in all forms. For him, it may very well have been a passing thought at the end of a long day or week, one of countless recommendations made over a brilliant, sustained, and unprecedented career (even then) but in my mind’s eye, I felt squarely put in my place knowing there was still much to learn and to see.
No doubt my story will be joined by many other, perhaps similar, remembrances in the coming days and weeks, of the small yet profound ways Roger Ebert touched our lives. It has always been reassuring to know he was there to turn to — whether through his movie reviews, books, blog, interviews, or in casual conversation wrapping up a course screening — ready to share his passion for movies and his love of life.